Becoming Poet: Sam Sax
We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the talented poet Sam Sax, author of two award winning collections, recipient multiple fellowships, and currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University—here’s what he has to say about his journey of becoming poet.
What’s your relationship to rejection? What was the best one you received? The worst?
Intimate. I came up through the slam, which has an immediate evaluative editorial response to your work. Folks like it or don’t with a numerical score. This is designed as a game but also functions as a populist workshop. So from there to rejection from lit journals and presses I’ve managed fine. I get rejections all the time, my submittable was hella red until they decided to switch the color. It seems useful to get inoculated to rejection early. To know that someone’s rejecting your work has an aesthetic sensibility that differs from yours & that poems can always use more work. I think the worst rejection came from fjords journal who rejected my poems and then asked me to pay for their boutique editorial services, I’ll never forget that. And the best are from all the folks who take the time to read and respond to my poems in any capacity. It’s such a gift and I understand how exhausting and thankless being an unpaid editor is.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
TBH it’s a term I don’t use often. I often say I’m a writer. I write poems. The word poet always feels funny in my mouth. Personally, I’d say poet is an aspiration and not an identity. I can name myself sure but the only honest way to language it is through the poems. I’ve for a while been trying to figure out why it always feels a little funky, to introduce myself as a poet. I’ve had to in certain circumstances, like applying for grants or in graduate school where it’s functional. I think for me it feels adjacent to the term ally, I feel like if I’m calling myself one instead of performing the work, I’m doing something wrong. This also isn’t to yuck anyone who feels comfy with poet, I know it’s useful for lots of folks, just not my fav.
What was the journey of getting your first book bury it published?
A shlep! I shopped one version or another of my first (now second) book around for years, many years. Wasted lots of money on many book contests. I got fed up with the barrier and premium placed upon the first book object so wrote into other projects. Eventually my book got accepted over at Wesleyan, and that same summer, my second book (which I wrote in frustration of the first not getting picked up) won the national poetry series. I was really lucky to have readers who were kind enough to offer thoughts over the course of my writing life. There were so many close friends and teachers in graduate school and outside were amazingly generous with their time. esp. Hieu Minh Nguyen, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, Kazim Ali, Carrie Fountain, Lisa Olstein, Patricia Smith, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Mike Mcgriff, DA Powell, yikes this list could go on & on–I’m really blessed.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
Sit in it. One way I’ve found fruitful is to take that dryness on as a material. Realize that dried fruits have a unique sweetness. It’s also okay to not be writing all the time (I keep trying to tell myself). Reading widely and outside my aesthetic sensibility always helps. And also living tends to be the greatest inspiration, to leave the writing desk or mattress or couch and go out into the world and let it do its thing upon, against, and inside me.
What’s part of your job as a poet that would surprise most people?
How much of it is emails.
What was your darkest moment as a poet?
Hard to say. The one that first comes to mind tho is after doing a gig in Dallas, me and another poet stayed at a spooky motel with a swastika carved into the door. And in the night had the windows of our car broken out and all my clothes were stolen, as well as my loop pedal (I used to do a thing with music and poems). Then the next day we had to drive to florida with a busted window in near freezing temperatures without any warm clothes and a half ounce of weed in the trunk. Then after arriving I got choked out in a trailer by a friend’s dad. That was a pretty rough time. & I’m so grateful that my touring life includes none of those things now.